Once upon a time, a young Frenchman came to Cairo to seek his fortune. His name was Alphonse de Gleon (1843-1899) and he settled in Ismailia, Cairo’s up-and-coming neighbourhood now best known as Downtown. Soon, he made a fortune selling ice and beer to the heat-stricken Europeans living in the hot and dusty city.
By 1872, Alphonse had enough money to build himself a sizeable residence containing a main house, which he liked to call haramlek, and a guest house which he called salamlek, on the northeast corner of what is now called Shawarbi Street.
The haramlek part of the house, an exceptionally inspiring piece of architecture, survives to this day, albeit in a much reduced form. When you’re passing down Shawarbi Street coming from Qasr El-Nil, examine carefully the last building on your right before you reach Tharwat Street. Behind the row of garment shops, you’ll detect the parapets along the southern wall of Alphonse’s house. There is a narrow corridor between the shops selling knock-off jeans and from there you can get a partial glimpse of the two mashrabia windows and three round windows that once adorned Alphonse’s seven-metre high reception room.
You can also enter the house from a small entrance on Shawarbi Street. The two columns you see to your left look a bit dwarfed. This is because they are the top part of the much taller columns that once adorned the house’s front veranda. The bottom part of the columns is now integrated into the shops underneath.
Alphonse, who came from an aristocratic family in Europe, was a fashionable young man who collected arts and befriended artists. His salamlek, which is now extinct, soon became a free lodging house for artists, a kind of private residence programme for artists in the Medici tradition, according to urban historian Mercedes Volait.
Luckily, photographs of this building have survived. They are kept by the Institute national de l’histoire de l’art in France and were reproduced in Volait’s book Fous du Caire. The photographs show lush Arabesque interiors, out of Arabian nights, complete with Persian carpets and wood-carved furniture. This was the period when orientalism was very much in fashion, when tastes of the East inspired European artists, and when Europe was beginning to fuse pharaonic, Islamic and Asian motifs into its increasingly eclectic taste.
Young Europeans, including Alphonse and his artist entourage, inspired and maintained this radical change in taste. Europe had had its fill of the renaissance and was looking to the colonies for fresh inspiration.
Today, the locals living and working on Shawarbi Street refer to Alphonse’s building as the “Shawarbi Palace.” The reason is that the Shawarbi family bought Alphonse’s house around the turn of the century. Later on the building housed the Italian Embassy and at one point was turned into offices for the magazine Al-Siyasa, mouthpiece of the pre-1952 Constitutional Liberal Party. It has not been used as a residence since.
Interestingly enough, this was not Alphonse’s only house. A nearby villa on Sherif Street also belonged to him. This one is in much better shape and its Arabesque facade should give you some idea about the Mamluk revivalism fashionable among successful Europeans in the 1880s, when this building was constructed.
Take one of the narrow alleyways heading east from Shawarbi into Sherif Street and look for the nearest McDonalds. Now with McDonalds at your back, look across the street and you’ll see a building which carries a fading imprint of a sign that used to say “Bank of Alexandria.” This is Alphonse’s second house. It is now administered by the antiquities authorities and may soon undergo renovation.
What makes this second house historically relevant is that Alphonse used to invite his friends to show their art there, thus giving Cairo its first ever taste of art exhibitions. Every year, usually during the slow month of Ramadan, members of Cairo’s “Cercle artistique” would exhibit their work to the appreciating public at this exact location.
Alphonse’s architectural legacy may have suffered over the years. Of the three buildings he had in Cairo, one (the salamlek) has disappeared, another (the haramlek) has been converted beyond recognition and only the third (the former Bank of Alexandria) is in relatively good shape. But the man’s artistic legacy has survived almost intact, elsewhere.
Alphonse donated his entire art collection, most of which he bought in Cairo in the 1870s and 1880s, to the Louvre, forming the seed from which the museum’s now extensive collection of Islamic art has grown.